Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, June 23, 2014

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest (Act 1: True Selves and Society)

In our last two reading selections we had contrasting characters. Montaigne retired to his country estate to devote more time to books and thinking. His goal was to settle down and get to know himself better. Rameau’s nephew was a man who always wanted to be at the center of social life in Paris. He changed his personality as often as he changed his clothes. So who were these two men, really? Did they each have a “true” self? If so, how would they know whether they were living truly authentic lives or just creating them as they went along?
Shakespeare’s play The Tempest ties together some elements brought out by Montaigne’s essay Of Experience and Diderot’s short story about Rameau’s Nephew. Prospero had been Duke of Milan. But he loved books more than being Duke. So, much like King Lear, Prospero turned over all governing responsibilities to someone else. He still wanted to enjoy all the benefits of being Duke but without the burden of duties that came along with it. In a sense he wanted to retire and devote himself to study just like Montaigne had done. Prospero says, “The government I cast upon my brother… thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated to closeness and the bettering of my mind…” In other words, Prospero became something of a bookworm. But that was ok with him because as he put it: “My library was dukedom large enough.” So who was the real Prospero deep down inside? What was his true self? Was he (a) Duke of Milan or (b) a scholar or (c) both?
Prospero’s daughter Miranda had a different problem. She didn’t know who she was. Literally, she didn’t know who she was. She knew she was Prospero’s daughter. But Miranda had grown up on a deserted island and had no idea how to live and behave in proper human society. She’s not uncivilized by any means. Prospero had taken great pains with her education and manners. In that sense she was home-schooled right from the start. But there were no other kids to play with. So Miranda was like a blank slate. Prospero can form her personality without exposing her to the social problems and emotional shocks she would be exposed to in an urban society in Milan. Then who is Miranda, really? What is her true self? Does she really have any ideas of her own? Or is she just a creation of the father-teacher who is himself torn between being Duke of Milan or a bookworm? Do parents pass their own problems along to their kids? Miranda is fifteen years old with the innocence of a toddler. The first time she sees Ferdinand she says: “There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple (Ferdinand’s body): If the ill spirit have so fair a house, good things will strive to dwell with't.” He looks good. He must be good. This is the way Miranda thinks.
This brings us to another major character in Act 1 of the play, Caliban. Caliban looks bad and he is bad. He’s not a beast but he’s not quite human either. Prospero calls him “a freckled whelp hag-born; not honour'd with a human shape.” In that sense Caliban exists in a kind of no-man’s land and doesn’t fit in anywhere. But he faces the same basic question everybody faces: who am I? Prospero is a Duke, a scholar, a father. Miranda is a daughter and a young woman falling in love. These are the ordinary roles taken on by ordinary people every day. But where does Caliban fit in? Can he be habilitated and civilized to live in human society? Maybe. So Prospero tries to teach him how and in return Caliban tries to rape Miranda. Caliban believes he’s the rightful king of the island and Prospero has stolen it from him. Oh, and he wants Miranda too. What is Caliban’s true self? In society, even a society of only three people, these competing selves have to find a way to live together.


Post a Comment

<< Home